Today, I will give my Republican friends the memory of Dr. Ross Z. Pierpont. Remember Ross? For all those who look at former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s troubles and the long continuum of Democratic leaders during the city of Baltimore’s fall from grace, I offer memories of the Republican Pierpont in a spirit of good cheer.
Pierpont’s been gone from us for 14 years. But while he was here, what a piece of work he was.
He ran for every office he could find, including mayor of Baltimore. He ran 16 political campaigns in all, and lost every time. He ran in lulls between medical surgery and Baltimore Clippers ice hockey games.
He was chief of surgery at Maryland General Hospital. He’d campaign after scrub-downs. When he ran for U.S. Congress one time, out in Harford County, rivals accused him of being an outsider.
“Do you even know the people here?” an opponent asked.
“Know them?” Pierpont replied. “I’ve had my hands inside most of ‘em.”
Much of the time, winning wasn’t the point. He wanted to get some ideas out into the atmosphere. With the Democrats so dominant, he wanted the political game to look like a full-fledged two-party system, even if it was only Pierpont performing a well-intended charade.
When he wasn’t operating or running for office, he was team physician of the old American Hockey League Clippers team. One night at the place we used to call the Baltimore Civic Center, an opponent named Keke Mortson bit Dave Creighton’s thumb. Creighton was a Clippers star.
Then, Mortson made a mistake. He skated near the Clippers’ bench. Pierpont reached out and punched Mortson in the face. The referee threw Pierpont out of the game.
Pierpont said he was embarrassed about the whole thing. But he was laughing when he said it.
He had another pretty good scrap over political turf. He was running against Mayor William Donald Schaefer, and the two of them got into it – verbally, no known punches – down in South Baltimore’s Cherry Hill one afternoon.
I was there and heard every word. Oh my, the indelicate vocabulary these guys had when no TV cameras were around.
In today’s political atmosphere, would we embrace such a man or brand him as a character too outlandish? Pierpont was smart as hell, and he had energy to burn. But he was a Republican in a city that hasn’t had a GOP mayor since Theodore R. McKeldin nearly 60 years ago.
Those who despair over the city’s recent troubles sometimes lay the blame with the Democrats. Elect a Republican, they insist, and the city will recover.
Oh, if only, if only …
This city’s problems aren’t about political party. They’re about drug dealers controlling impoverished neighborhoods with arsenals that match those of any police officers. They’re about kids growing up without families. They’re about a school system where learning is secondary to crowd control. They’re about generations of entrenched poverty and hopelessness.
If a Republican comes along who can begin fixing such problems, let’s vote that Republican in. But the issue isn’t party, it’s breakdown of the social system.
If the right person comes along for Baltimore, who cares about political party?
Ross Pierpont was a guy who embodied the American Dream. A child of poverty, he grew up selling vegetables in the street. He milked cows and sold the milk. When he was 11, he ran a pool hall. For a time, he worked with an evangelist, saving souls.
Could he have saved the city of Baltimore? Who knows? He was astute and energetic, and he had a sense of fun we could use right now. But it’s not about political party, it’s about the quality of leadership.
And man, could we use a leader now – whatever the party.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.